Although Thanksgiving had been observed sporadically throughout the nation since the administration of George Washington, the day was never observed as a national holiday until President Abraham Lincoln issued a proclamation making it a legal holiday.
The nation was set to observe the first national day of giving thanks in November of 1863. Ironically, the day would not go off without a hitch. Thanks to the compassionate spirit of a precocious, yet mischievous child, the holiday took an unusual twist and a new tradition was born that is carried on to this day.
Late in 1863, a live turkey was brought to the White House. The turkey was intended to be dinner for the Lincoln family as they celebrated their first official Thanksgiving.
Tad Lincoln, the president’s youngest child, noticed the bird ambling around in a pen on the lawn. The 10-year-old loved animals and began taking up time with the bird unaware of the turkey’s impending doom. He named his new found friend, Jack.
Early on Thanksgiving morning Tad arose and went outside to find his feathered friend missing. He searched the grounds of the White House and failed to find the bird. He later found Jack in a cage in the White House kitchen. The diminutive child asked the cook why Jack was caged. The cook responded that he was to be killed and served for dinner.
Tad was horrified. He implored the cook not to kill Jack until he had a chance to speak to his father. The youth rushed upstairs to the President’s conference room where he was having a staff meeting. Tad burst into the room with tears in his eyes and begged his father to spare Jack’s life. He explained that he had asked the “executioner” to delay killing Jack until he spoke on his behalf.
The president explained to the child that Jack had been brought there specifically to be eaten by the family.
Tad pleaded “He’s a good turkey, and I don’t want him killed. He must not be killed. It is wicked.”
Historians have long debated President Lincoln’s motivation. But, his actions inspired an unusual holiday tradition.
As a child, young Abraham Lincoln went out to hunt for food. He was about Tad’s age when he shot what would be the only turkey he ever killed. He was later overcome with remorse after he saw the lifeless eyes of the bird. His guilt traumatized him and he never hunted for game again.
Whether he saw an opportunity to appease his child and play a good-natured joke on the White House chef or if he remembered his own earlier hunting experiences as a child that left him traumatized, no one will ever know.
After a moment of thought Lincoln wrote a note to the chef that Jack the Turkey was to be spared and released to Tad Lincoln.
The grateful child thanked his father and rushed downstairs hoping it was not too late. He approached the chef and handed him the presidential order sparing Jack’s life. The chef read the note, rolled his eyes and released the bird to Tad’s custody. Jack lived out his remaining years as Tad’s pet on the grounds of the White House.
Remembering the story of Tad, President Harry S. Truman started the tradition of pardoning a Presidential Thanksgiving Turkey in 1947. In a ceremony held at the White House, Truman read Tad’s story to an audience then ceremoniously issued a pardon to the fortunate turkey.
Every year since, the National Turkey Federation has raised a turkey to participate in the annual event. Following his pardon, the turkey is released to Frying Pan Park’s Kidwell Farm where they live out the remaining years of their lives. The farm is a petting farm where kids get to meet the turkeys that dodged the butcher’s cleaver.
(Michael Williams is the author of “Stranger than Fiction: The Lincoln Curse.” The book is a collection of 50 strange and unusual but true stories. They will leave the reader convinced that Mark Twain was right when he said “truth is stranger than fiction.”
The book is 187 pages in a softbound edition with numerous photos. It can be purchased from amazon.com for $19.95 (plus shipping and handling) or one can save shipping cost and $2 on the purchase price by ordering a signed copy directly from the author. Send $17.95 to 269 Palmer Road Gatlinburg, TN. 37738.)